Keswick, in the North Lake District, is beautiful and awesome in many ways, but none more so than in the quirkiness and surprisingly rich history of the Cumberland Pencil Museum. When my friend Emmy invited me to stay with her in Cumbria, she told me that I must immediately visit the pencil museum and that I would get a free pencil. This was motivation enough.
And so, on a bright but freezing Monday afternoon in March, while Emmy was at work and the mountains were looking splendid, I ignored them completely and went indoors to learn all about pencils. The cheery lady at the front desk took my £4 (bargain!) and gave me my leaflet and free pencil (nearly died with excitement just at this point) and pointed me towards some polystyrene graphite mines, telling me to watch my head and to look out for the jumbo pencil.
I spent the next hour learning as much as I could cram into my already overcrowded little brain about the history of pencil making, the process of creating different types of pencil, the technical jargon (what HB stands for etc) and what role Keswick has played in pencil making over the years. It was actually fascinating stuff. All my London stress fell out of my head and I got really into everything lead-and-pigment related.
(I did learn that Cumberland Pencils are no longer made with Cumberland graphite, and that the graphite used actually comes from China and Sri Lanka now. Which made my free pencil suddenly quite disappointing, but I decided to overlook it. MY pencil is, of course, special, and quite probably the exception.)
I got to see a lot of pencils through the ages that people had donated to the museum, special edition pencils that had been created for various Jubilees and other royal occasions, and learn all about the plight of the Cumberland Pencil factory workers during World War II as they strove to fit a tiny, undetectable compass inside the end of a pencil to help prisoners of war overseas, at the behest of Charles Fraser-Smith (the real life Q) and in complete secrecy.
And after all of this, I got to sit down and try to recreate mountains and lakes with watercolour pencils (which, it turned out, I am not very good at). It was incredibly relaxing.
Then of course, right at the end, there was the gift shop, which is arguably the best part of ANY museum, and the part where despite your brain telling you not to, you buy £65 worth of neon erasers with your name written on it in Latin just BECAUSE. This museum gift shop had hundreds of different pencil gift sets and I managed to get away having only invested in a paintbrush, a giant pencil that I suspect was intended for a child, and £45 worth of postcards with pictures of pencils on them. Pretty good going.
I arrived back at Emmy’s later that day feeling very happy, and brimming over with my new-found knowledge of pencils. Emmy asked me if I’d seen the giant pencil and my jaw dropped as I realised I had, at some point, walked right past it. ‘But it’s 7 feet tall!’ Emmy exclaimed in dismay.
I think a second visit may be imminent.
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